Good Borders Admit People and Block Governments
Like all good libertarians, I hate waiting in government-mandated lines. Heck, you don’t even have to be a curmudgeonly libertarian to have unpleasant thoughts about the Post Office or Department of Motor Vehicles (not to mention the virtual lines that exist for people stuck on hold after calling the IRS or some other inefficient bureaucracy).
And it must be doubly irritating to wait in line to get bureaucratic approval for things that shouldn’t require any sort of government permission in the first place.
Since I have to do a bit of travel, I’m especially resentful of the lines I face for customs and immigration when I cross borders. In some cases, these restrictions can even turn “Heaven into Hell.”
My aversion to government-mandated lines is so strong that I’m a big fan of the European Union’s “Schengen Zone” that has made crossing many European borders as simple as crossing from one American state to another (and regular readers know that I’m normally very reluctant to say anything nice about the policies concocted by the crowd in Brussels).
Given all this, I was very interested to see that the leading bureaucrat of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has said that borders are “the worst invention ever.”
Was he making a libertarian argument about the value of making it easier for people to travel and/or move? Let’s investigate. Here’s some of what was reported about Juncker’s comments in the U.K.-based Daily Mail.
EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker risked widening divisions with European leaders today by saying borders were the ‘worst invention ever’. He called for all borders across Europe to be opened, despite the chaos caused over the last year from the flood in refugees fleeing Syria and the wave of terror attacks hitting various continent’s cities. …Mr Juncker also said a stronger EU was the best way of beating the rising trend of nationalism cross Europe. In another extraordinary remark, he appeared to warn of war on the continent if the EU disintegrates as he echoed the warning from the former French president Francois Mitterrand, who said nationalism added to nationalism would end in war.
Writing for the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Barone offered a different perspective.
He starts with the observation that Juncker’s home country of Luxembourg is rich because of borders.
Juncker comes from Luxembourg, a 998-square mile country… If you look up Luxembourg in lists of world economic statistics, you’ll find it rated No. 2 in gross domestic product per capita. That’s thanks to what Juncker called politicians’ worst invention ever, borders. Luxembourg is a financial haven and headquarters of the world’s largest steel company, Arcelor Mittal. Without their borders and national laws, the 576,000 Luxembourgers wouldn’t be as affluent as they are.
Barone is correct. Luxembourg is only a very successful tax haven because it has the right to have tax laws inside its borders that are attractive relative to the tax laws that exist in adjoining nations such as France and Germany.
For those who care about foreign policy, Barone also pushes back at the notion the European Union somehow has prevented World War III.
Juncker said, “We have to fight against nationalism, we have the duty not to follow populists but to block the avenue of populists.” Such is the faith of the Eurocrats: The EU exists to prevent another war between France and Germany. Never mind that the chance of such a war has been zero since 1945, 71 years ago. …Juncker was denouncing Austria and other nations for erecting border controls to keep out Muslim refugees. Evidently he believes that World War III will somehow break out if they are kept out.
This is surely right. The people in Western Europe no longer have any interest in fighting each other. And to the extent any international organization deserves credit for that, it would be NATO (even if it no longer serves a purpose).
Let’s now shift back to the role of borders and the size and power of government.
Borders Limit Government
If you want a really good libertarian-oriented explanation of why borders are valuable, let’s go back in time to 2004. Professor Andy Morriss wrote an article for The Freeman that explains borders are good for liberty because they limit the powers of governments.
Borders come from property rights and are essential to a free society…are wonderful things. Lorain and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio must compete for my family’s residence. Choosing to live where we do is related to the taxes charged by the communities where we might have lived.
The value of borders, Andy explains, is that they represent a territorial restriction on the power of government and people can cross those borders if they think governments are being too greedy and oppressive.
Investors make similar choices. …Choosing bad policies produces an exodus; choosing good policies leads to immigration of both capital and people. …the competition offered on local taxation policy and other regulatory issues is important in restraining governments from infringing liberty. …National borders are also important sources of liberty. …without borders we would not have the competition among jurisdictions that restricts attempts to abridge liberty. …Jurisdictions…compete to attract people and capital. This competition motivates governments to act to preserve liberty.
He cites the example of how Delaware became the leading jurisdiction for company formation (and also a very good tax haven for foreigners).
…states compete for corporations, with Delaware the current market leader. Delaware corporate law offers companies the combination of a mostly voluntary set of default rules and an expert decision-making body (the Court of Chancery). As a result, many corporations, large and small, choose to incorporate in Delaware, making it their legal residence. (Their actual headquarters need not be physically located there.) Corporations get a body of liberty-enhancing rules; Delaware gets tax revenue and employment in the corporate services and legal fields. That state’s position is no accident. At the beginning of the twentieth century, New Jersey was the market leader in corporate law. When New Jersey’s legislature made ill-advised changes to its corporations statute that reduced shareholder value, Delaware seized the opportunity and offered essentially the older version of New Jersey’s law.
Borders Create Experiments
Statists are correct that competition among jurisdictions will make clear the costs of the policies they promote. …The former divide between East and West Berlin is a fine example of the impact of cross-border comparisons. East Germans could see the difference in outcomes between the two societies, and East Germany had to resort to increasingly costly and desperate measures to prevent its citizens from voting against communism with their feet. …Competition between the two Germanys exposed the cost of East German policies.
In an observation that could have been taken from today’s headlines, he also notes that uncompetitive governments try to prop up their inefficient welfare states by clamping down on pro-market policies in other nations.
To prevent cross-border competition from exposing the costs of their favorite policies, …special interests attempt to forestall it. …High-tax, heavy-regulatory jurisdictions in the European Union are waging just such a fight now, arguing, for example, that Ireland’s low taxes are “unfair” competition.
Andy’s conclusion hits the nail on the head. We may not like having to wait in lines and fill out forms to cross borders, but the alternative would be worse.
Even though borders can be an excuse for reducing liberty, a world with lots of borders is nonetheless a far friendlier world for liberty than one with fewer borders. They promote competition for people and money, which tends to restrain the state from grabbing either. Borders offer chances to arbitrage regulatory restrictions, making them less effective. Without borders these constraints on the growth of the state would vanish.
State Competition and Social Progress
Before closing, let’s look at an example of how governments are forced to dismantle bad policy because of the jurisdictional competition that only exists because of borders. It’s from an academic study written by Jayme Lemke, a scholar from the Mercatus Center. Here are some excerpts from the abstract.
Married women in the early nineteenth century United States were not permitted to own property, enter into contracts without their husband’s permission, or stand in court as independent persons. This severely limited married women’s ability to engage in formal business ventures, collect rents, administer estates, and manage bequests through wills. By the dawn of the twentieth century, legal reform in nearly every state had removed these restrictions by extending formal legal and economic rights to married women.
Why did states grant economic liberty and property rights to women?
Was it because male legislators suddenly stopped being sexist?
Maybe that played a role, but it turns out that people moved to states that eliminated these statist restrictions and that pressured other states to also reform.
…what forces impelled legislators to undertake the costs of action? …interjurisdictional competition between states and territories in the nineteenth century was instrumental in motivating these reforms. Two conditions are necessary for interjurisdictional competition to function: (1) law-makers must hold a vested interest in attracting population to their jurisdictions, and (2) residents must be able to actively choose between the products of different jurisdictions. Using evidence from the passage of the Married Women’s Property Acts, I find that legal reforms were adopted first and in the greatest strength in those regions in which there was active interjurisdictional competition.
The moral of the story is that competition between states improved the lives of women by forcing governments to expand economic liberty.
And since even the New York Times has published columns showing that feminist-type government interventions actually hurt women, perhaps the real lesson (especially for our friends on the left) is that you help people by expanding freedom, not by expanding the burden of government.
P.S. There is a wealth of scholarly evidence that the western world became rich because of borders and jurisdictional competition.
This article was first published on Dan Mitchell’s blog.
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